March 12th was the 50th anniversary of The Velvet Underground & Nico, arguably one of the most influential popular music recordings of the twentith century, though it wasn’t evident at the time of it’s publication. The cast of characters included:
- the lyricist, a survivor of electroshock therapy, inspired by writers and poets of disreputable subjects, who mixed literary references with deviant topics, and provided most of the lead vocals
- the classically-trained utility musician (bass, piano, viola, celeste) and principal arranger, a friend of the lyricist
- the guitarist, a friend of the lyricist
- the drummer, a former IBM keypunch operator, who studied African drummer Babatunde Olatunji, eschewed a conventional kit, omitted use of cymbals and played standing up
- the producer, who was mostly hands-off, but a world-renown artist
- the secondary vocalist, an actress, model, and singer, inserted into the band at behest of the producer, who was described as “half goddess, half icicle”
This cast is also known, in order as, Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Moe Tucker, Andy Warhol and Nico.
In my estimation, the tracks on this album invented two new genres: Lo-Fi Pop and Noise/Art Rock. I’m sure you can pick which tracks did which. It would take another generation for those aspects to be relevant.
The album was a commercial failure, to which Brian Eno famously said “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band”. There are a number of artists on record as being influenced by Velvet Underground: Sonic Youth, The Pixies, Joy Division, R.E.M, Talking Heads, Galaxie 500, The Melvins, Nick Cave,, PJ Harvey, U2, Joy Division, Morrissey, Artic Monkeys, LCD Soundsystem, Roxy Music .. and if that weren’t enough .. even David Bowie. Some of these adopted either the Lo-Fi Pop or Noise/Art Rock nature, or a hybrid of both. I hear echos of this album all over in grunge, shoe-gaze, goth, art rock and even 90’s indie.
The other ground-breaking and perhaps more influential aspect of this album is the uncloaked lyrical depictions of drug use, prostitution, and sexual deviations. The list of norms shattered by subsequent artists is endless.
Robert Christgau would write ten years later after this record’s release that the album was too hard to understand in 1967 and “which is probably why people are still learning from it”.